Know the Etymology: 19
Place Name of the Day: Sunday, 07 October 2007


Keerimalai

கீரிமலை
kīrimalai

Keeri+malai

  1. The cliff of a Paasupatha preceptor
  2. The white cliff


Keeri mongoose; Keeram: milk; Keeri: cactus, a plant (Ophiorrhiza mungo), a tree (Lythrum pemphis)
Malai hill, elevated place, a cliff in this context.


Malai is a general word for hill in Tamil. The word is found used in a wide range of contexts, from a humble mound to the Himalayas.

The Jaffna peninsula is shallow and flat, rising only a few feet above the sea level. The highest point of this landscape is at Keerimalai, which is about 50 feet above the Mean Sea Level. The exact spot is a limestone cliff, washed by the waves of the Palk Strait. The suffix Malai in the place name has to be understood in this geographical context.

Keerimalai is situated in the northern coastline of the peninsula. The place name is associated with myths and legends, attested by all the historiographical literature and chronicles of Jaffna.

The stories associate the place with a sage called Nakula Muni. He was called by that name because he had a face of a mongoose. Nagula in Sanskrit means a mongoose. He was relieved of his curse and acquired a human face after taking bath in the natural springs at this place. He made the place as his abode and hence it became Keerimalai. Keeri is the Tamil synonym for nagula, meaning a mongoose.

Nakulisa/Lakulisa
Nakulisa or Lakulisa, Ellora Cave 29
Nakulisa/Lakulisa
Nakulisa/Lakulisa, shown with four desciples. Bhubaneswar, Orissa
Nakulisa/Lakulisa
Nakulisa/Lakulisa, styled like Buddha. The staff at the left shoulder makes the difference in the iconography. Bhubaneswar, Orissa [Courtesy: Huntington Archive]
Ophiorrhiza mungos
Keeri Poo'ndu, Keeri Pura'ndaan, Paathaa'la Karudan. The mongoose plant (Ophiorrhiza mungos). The root is a medicane for snake poison. The mongoose is said to roll around this plant to cure itself from snake bite. [Courtesy: Tab. 77 from Adolphus Ypey, published by Kurt Stüber, http://www.biolib.de]
Keeri Maram
Keeri shrub, a coastal vegetaion (Lythrum pemphis or Pemphis acidula) [Courtesy: Société Botanique de France]
The Siva temple established by this sage at this place was named Nakulesvaram, which according to the chronicles of Jaffna, is one of earliest in Sri Lanka, existed prior to the arrival of Vijaya of the Pali chronicles.

The stories continue to say that later, a Chola princess was also relieved of her curse of having a horse-like face by taking bath in the springs.

These myths found place in written literature at a later time.

Nakulisa or Lakulisa was the first preceptor of the Pasupata school of Saivism, which was the earliest among the sects of Saivism.

The word pasupata should be pronounced as paa'supatha.

Originating from Gujarat, the sect spread across the sub-continent and even beyond in historical times. The sect doesn’t exist today.

The priority given to Guru (preceptor and initiator) in the fundamentals of Saiva Siddhanta (Guru, Linga, Sangama) and the idea that a Guru is Siva himself originated from the Pasupata teachings.

The iconographic representations of Lukulisa which was synthesized with Buddha in his teaching position in some parts of South Asia, was synthesized into Siva in the form of a teacher (Thadchanaamoorthi) in South India.

The names Nakulisa and Lakulisa have come from the words nakula or lakula, which stood for the staff (the long stick displayed as a symbol of asceticism) of the preceptor.

Those who belonged to the line of the Pasupata preceptors were also called by the name Nakulisa or Lakulisa.

Such preceptors were known in the other parts of South Asia for their activities in giving new dimensions to the already existing cult of Siva and in synthesizing the tribal and local elements of faith into Saivism. It was a non-Brahmanic movement stressing on the Agamas than the Vedas.

Thirumoolar, an early saint of Tamil Saivism, is regarded as one who had come from the lineage of Pasupata preceptors.

In all probability, it was one such Pasupata preceptor or a group of Pasupatas who had come to Keerimalai and made an establishment there.

The present temple, Nakuleasvaram, at Keerimalai is a recent structure. There is a strong possibility that the original temple was a samaadhi temple (a burial or memorial temple). The Pasupatas were largely known to officiate in such temples built for preceptors or rulers.

The story of the mongoose face had come from translating the word nakula into Tamil as keeri, when the original connections with Pasupata Saivism were forgotten.

A similar loss of memory seemed to have taken place in the case of the Keatheesvaram temple at Mantai.

Keatham is a Prakrit form of Kshetram, meaning, a place or sacred place. It was widely used in the late Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka. The word is also found in the Tamil lexicons. Keathaaram was the foremost sacred place for the Pasupatas, who had the habit of naming temples by that name wherever they went.

With the loss of memory, a myth arose that the temple gained the name because Keathu, (the snake-bodied planet of mythology) worshipped Siva there.

The Pasupata establishment at Keerimalai might have succeeded by a Veerasaiva one, probably in the times of the Vijayanagara Empire. Such transitions smoothly took place elsewhere too, because both Pasupatam and Veerasaivam were non-Brahmanic traditions.

Today, Keerimalai is an important centre of the Veerasaivas, who probably had come from Karnataka. Until recent times, the old generation of them was retaining a code-language, with traces of Kannada vocabulary, to speak among them, without being understood by others.

There is yet another possibility for the origins of the name Keerimalai. As a limestone cliff, it can also mean ‘the white hill’. Keeram is milk according to the lexicons, Thivaakaram, Pingkalam and Choodaama’ni. The cognate in Sinhala is Kiri.

The lexicon Choodaama'ni says Keeri is 'solid'. The Winslow's Tamil Dictionary adds the following meanings for the word Keeri: cactus, a plant (Ophiorrhiza mungo) and a tree (Lythrum pepmphis).

Keerimalai is a pilgrim centre and is considered a sacred place to perform rituals to ancestors. It is located in the Valikaamam North division of the Jaffna district.

The limestone cliff at Keerimalai
The limestone cliff at Keerimalai


First published: Sunday, 01 July 2007, 01:00

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